Ornette Coleman, July 1997 – part 1

Ornette Coleman’s Skies of America

Lincoln Center Festival 97

July 8, 1997

Any performance by Ornette Coleman should not be missed. He rarely performs his music his music in public and one never knows when he’ll blow through town. This has been temporarily corrected by a series of concerts, part of the Lincoln Center Festival 97.

As an opening act, Aaron Copeland’s Fanfare for the Common Man was performed. Why? You’ve got me because I think Ornette’s a genius. We were then treated to selected American Poetry readings by actor Reggie Montgomery. Works included Martha Graham, N. Scott Momaday, Jonathan Edwards, Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes, Joy Harjo and Allen Ginsberg.

After the New York Philharmonic assembled on stage, conductor Kurt Masur and genius Ornette Coleman entered stage left. Ornette the fashion statement, this time wearing a harmolodic black and white checker suit with matching harmolodic two tone shoes. For this alone (well, maybe not…), the crowd gave him a lengthy standing ovation. Amazing.

Skies of America is one of Ornette’s post-classical concert hall pieces. Originally recorded in the early ’70’s with just Ornette and London Symphony Orchestra, this version is revised. Apparently the original was to include his band but British Union regulations forbade it presumably because he wasn’t using local talent. One wonders what this sounded like with his acoustic group. This evenings concert included his Prime Time band consisting of:

Ornette Coleman – Alto Saxophone
Denardo Coleman – Drums
Dave Bryant – Keyboards
Bradley Jones – Acoustic Bass
Al MacDowell – Electric Bass
Chris Rosenberg – Guitar
Badal Roy – Tabla
Kenny Wessel – Guitar

Skies of America alternates the orchestra with the Prime Time Band. Some times, at the end of a Prime Time section, the orchestra plays a unrelated theme behind the band. The audience also applauded after every Ornette solo with Prime Time as if at a sporting event, violating sacred concert hall behavior: wait until the end of the work, do not applaud in between movements.

Avery Fisher Hall was designed for acoustic music and the muddy sound system couldn’t really handle the sound of the Prime Time band. When the whole band played, individual members contributions (except Ornette) were lost in the mud. Toward the end there was a section were the orchestra played drones and each member of the band played solos or duets with Ornette. One could hear how brilliant Badal Roy’s tabla, or each of the bassist’s were. Or even how cheesy the keyboardist’s patches were. Keeping that DX7 bell piano sound alive in a newer model. Yeech!

Nit picking aside, it was great to hear Coleman’s horn with the orchestra. Besides reinventing jazz, he has a distinct tone and phrasing to his alto playing. While I love the 25 year old Columbia version, let’s hope that he releases a current version of this piece. Presumably, this was recorded for the Caravan of Dreams label but never released.


Ornette Coleman, Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins and special guests

Lincoln Center Festival 97
July 10, 1997

I’ve been waiting years for this concert, I’ve really felt bad about all the times I had to miss opportunities to hear Ornette perform acoustic music.

The first half of the concert featured Ornette Coleman (alto saxophone, trumpet and violin) with original quartet members Charlie Haden (bass) and Billy Higgins (drums). With the late Don Cherry on trumpet, they changed the post-bop, post-Charlie Parker world of jazz by taking a turn and improvising on the melody, not the chord changes. A lot of established jazz masters were hostile, others learned and incorporated the new language into their own music.

This evenings concert featured music either new or unfamiliar to me, doesn’t really matter because the compositions were obviously Ornette.

Highlights included:

  • Not just the give and play between the members of the trio, but the solos by Haden (liquid) and Higgins (stunning).
  • Ornette on trumpet!
  • Ornette on violin!!
  • It was a long set!!!

After intermission, the trio was joined by Kenny Barron (piano) and Wallace Roney (trumpet). Damm strange to hear Ornette with a piano, but I guess it worked. At one point, Barron had a solo spot and sounded way too manicured, as soon as Haden walked in, those nails grew.
Roney, on the other hand seems to have a bit of that dusty old neo-classical-bop in him that he really tried to shake off. He would bend and slide a bit, but couldn’t resist playing some runs to blow off steam. Towards the end, the different approaches to tuning between Ornette and Ronney really showed, beating like crazy.

Vocalists Lauren Kinhan and Chris Walker both sat in (stood in?) for a song a piece and also a duet. This gave Ornette an opportunity to harmolodicize to a ballad, sliding in his own melodies. Kinhan’s phrasing was particularly stunning. The band closed out the set with the blues Turnaround.

How was the sound? I’m glad you asked….the first half of the evening was pretty good , the drums could have been a wee bit louder, the horn was a a bit piercing when loud, too soft when soft and the bass was just right, said Goldielocks. During the second half, Ornette could have been a bit louder. I sat about 15th row but up on the wall, in the 1st tier.

Did I mention how much I miss Don Cherry and Ed Blackwell?


Both reviews originally appeared on-line in Juxtaopsition Ezine.

NY Times review of the same shows over here.

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